He got people terribly mad, Abbie, and for very good reason: He was insufferable. He was insufferable because he held the mirror up so that we saw ourselves. That’s just what the biblical prophets did, they operated in just that way. Wasn’t it Isaiah who walked abroad naked to prophesy the deportation of the Jews? And wasn’t it Jeremiah who wore a yoke around his neck to prophesy their slavery?
Not only had Doctorow known Abbie in the 1960s; he put him into The Book of Daniel (1971) to say something about “the generally sacrificial role” the left has played in American history. His Abbie Hoffman/Artie Sternlicht was in too much of a hurry to have the time of day, still less the historical purchase, for such ambassadors from a wounded Old Left to the crazy New as pathetic Daniel or his sick sister Susan. According to the Yippie motormouth:
You want to know what was wrong with the old American Communists? They were into the system. They wore ties. They held down jobs. They put people up for President. They thought politics is something you do at a meeting. When they got busted they called it tyranny. They were Russian tit suckers. Russia! Who’s free in Russia? All the Russians want is steel up everyone’s ass. Where’s the revolution in Russia?… The American Communist Party set the Left back fifty years. I think they worked for the FBI. That’s the only explanation. They were conspiratorial. They were invented by J. Edgar Hoover. They were his greatest invention.
Unfortunately, the prophet Abbie didn’t make it to the screen in Lumet’s movie, in spite of their shooting his scene from two different angles. In an interview with Paul Levine, the editor of Three Screenplays, Lumet himself concedes that by omitting Hoffman, the film failed to make the connection that had mattered so much to the novel: “This is why we have no American Left today, because it cut itself off from its roots.”
Still, there is no shortage of naked Isaiahs or yoke-wearing Jeremiahs elsewhere in Doctorow, speaking a heightened, hallucinatory language—even elsewhere in Daniel, as Daniel and Susan are attacked by a “giant eye machine” with insect legs and an incinerating beam, and dive with open arms into shock therapy and revolutionary space, as if to die “on a parabolic curve.” Ragtime (1974) is prophetic in its bowels: in Sarajevo, Houdini having failed to warn the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, “the green feathers of the plumed helmet turned black with blood.” In Egypt, on his camel, J.P. Morgan is surprised to find the pennant-winning New York Giants baseball team swarming “like vermin” over the Great Sphinx, sitting “in the holes of the face.” And in Mexico, in the great desert “of barrel cactus and Spanish bayonet,” the bomb-making Younger Brother will at last find Zapata.
In Loon Lake (1980), a poet discovers Japan’s Bunraku puppet theater and takes it personally (“yes it’s exactly true…when I decide to do something someone else is propelling me when I look up at the sky or down at the ground I feel the talons on my neck”) while a carny worker contemplates the plutocrat he will become by prestidigitation (“he was a killer of poets and explorers, a killer of boys and girls and he killed with as little thought as he gave to breathing, he killed by breathing he killed by existing he was an emperor, a maniac force in pantaloons and silk slippers and lacquered headdress dispensing like treasure pieces of his stool, making us throw ourselves on our faces to be beheaded one by one with gratitude”). In World’s Fair (1985), the most autobiographical of all Doctorow’s novels, it’s hard to know which is more prophetic, Edgar’s ether dream of his dead grandmother (“my own terrible passion, with my eyes turned into the past as if rolled up in my head, and I seeing what was dead and gone in the disconnection from my own forwardness through time, as if, becalmed and drifting to stillness, to inanimation, the mind sees death as life”) or the burning of the zeppelin Hindenburg:
They were not supposed ever to touch land, they were tethered to tall towers, they were sky creatures; and this one had fallen in flames to the ground…. Everything around me was going up and down, up and down. Joe Louis hit Jim Braddock and Braddock went down. I had seen paintings in books of knights fallen from their horses, or horses fallen, and in King Kong there was the terrible shaking of the earth by the falling of the great dinosaurs in battle. And, of course, Kong himself had fallen. Just recently I had seen an old man in the street suddenly drop to his knees for no reason at all, and then topple to one side and sit on the sidewalk leaning back on one elbow, and I had found that terrifying. In bed, trying to sleep, I imagined my father stumbling and crashing to the ground, and I cried out.
When Dutch Schultz is gunned down in Billy Bathgate (1989), we are told that his “monologue of his own murder” isn’t poetry; it is more “a cryptic passion.” But a cryptic passion can pass for prophecy:
The fact is he lived as a gangster and spoke as a gangster, and when he died bleeding from the sutured holes in his chest he died of the gangsterdom of his mind as it flowed from him, he died dispensing himself in utterance, as if death is chattered-out being, or as if all we are made of is words and when we die the soul of speech decants itself into the universe.
City of God (2000), as much as prophecy, is also full of prayer: “Wherever you look in the world now, God belongs to the atavists.” And:
Oh, Lord, our Narrator, who made a text from nothing, once more I dare to speak to You and of You and inevitably from You in one of Your inventions, one of Your intonative systems of clicks and grunts and glottal stops and trills.
Let us celebrate the constancy of the speed of light, let us praise gravity, that it is in action the curvature of space, and glory that even light is bent by its force, riding the curvatures of space toward celestial objects as a fine, shimmering red-golden net might drape over them.
But let us leave this portion of the sermon with some sentences from Lives of the Poets:
Maybe like that poet in Yeats who lies down to die on the king’s doorstep because he’s been kicked out of the ruling circle. Yeah, that’s what this place is, that’s what I’m doing here, and if I die, let the curse be on their heads. What else can this mean except that I’ve been deprived of my ancient right to matter? Yes, you mothers, I of the Untitled Thread Mills, a mere man of words, will sit once more in the councils of state or a dire desolation will erupt from the sky, drift like a fire-filled fog over the World Trade Center, glut the streets of SoHo with its sulfurous effulgence, shriek through every cracked window, stop the singing voice of every living soul, and make of your diversified investment portfolio a useless thing.
Whatever else I may repent of, therefore let it be reckoned neither among my sins nor follies that I once had faith and force enough to form generous hopes of the world’s destiny.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance
I began thinking about Doctorow as, among novelists, our preeminent lefty. There is a richer literature than is sometimes suggested, from the John Dos Passos who hit the streets for Sacco and Vanzetti to the Max Eastman who put Big Bill Haywood in a novel to Sherwood Anderson’s Marching Men, Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited, Joe Freeman’s Never Call Retreat, Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money, and James T. Farrell’s Danny O’Neill quartet, plus Josephine Herbst, who was informed on to the FBI by Katherine Anne Porter, Mary Lee Settle, who devoted one novel to Mother Jones and another to Harlan County and the Spanish Civil War, and Theodore Dreiser, Nelson Algren, Lillian Hellman, Edward Dahlberg, Kay Boyle, Waldo Frank, and Tillie Olsen, as well as Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore, Clancy Sigal’s Going Away, Harvey Swados’s Standing Fast, and Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, after which I will forget a few but certainly not Chuck Wachtel, who in The Gates left the Lower East Side for Managua and Sandinismo, Richard Powers, who in Operation Wandering Soul tried to save third-world orphans in a public hospital in Watts, and Grace Paley, who has enjoined the rest of us to “go forth, with fear and courage and rage to save the world.”
Even so, Doctorow is radically stained. In his pages we have met Thermidor and Kronstadt; the Triangle factory fire and a Hester Street flu epidemic; Paul Robeson, Upton Sinclair, Red Emma, Eugene V. Debs, and Wobblies; Pancho Villa, Norman Thomas, Morris Hillquit, Chairman Mao, and the Red Army Chorus singing “Meadowlands” between purges. Besides which, The Book of Daniel is the class of the progressive crop, a keeper of Malraux’s company or Victor Serge’s.
But, of course, he isn’t flying on a single wing. And in Reporting the Universe, he sneaks in a working definition of a different sort of worship. In high school, Kafka, Singer, and Bellow were so “spectacularly themselves” that “it was never the case of any sort of ethnic bonding.” And so, too, was everybody else who really counted. García Márquez was a Catholic from Colombia, Jane Austen an Anglican from Britain, Dostoevsky a fanatically Orthodox Christian from Russia: obviously, “there is another religion the great ones practice in their art, and it has no name.”
With that in mind, we look briefly at Doctorow’s last two novels, reviewed for the most part indifferently by people who have earned our indifference in their turn.
The Waterworks (1994) is both a Gothic and a detective story, about science, religion, and capitalism, but also journalism, politics, and New York. We are reminded of Melville, Poe, Crane, and Edith Wharton, but also Joseph Conrad. In 1871, as today, the spendthrift city, with its temples raised to savage cults, its gaudy display and blind selection, its humming wires and orphaned children, is a Darwinian jungle, a heart of darkness, and a necropolis. In this new industrial park, after a bloody Civil War, imagine a white stagecoach full of old men in black top hats. A freelance book reviewer for one of the city’s many newspapers thinks he sees his dead father in this coach. When this critic disappears, his editor and the only honest cop in Boss Tweed’s corrupt New York will seek him from Printing House Square to Buffalo Tavern to the Black Horse. Meanwhile children who have vanished from the streets or drowned in the reservoir turn up in coffins not their own. We move through the mosaics of daily journalism and routine police procedure toward what Doctorow calls “the limbo of science and money.” There, in an orphanage and a conservatory, in a laboratory and a ballroom, we will be asked questions about sanity and virtue, vampire capitalism and the morality of medicine, historical truth and natural selection, as, from the blood, bone marrow, and spinal fluid of nameless missing children, the Very Rich and Living Dead are rendered “biomotive” and seen to waltz, with deaf-mute caretaker women, under the shameless water, vaulted heavens, and God-stunned stars.
As for City of God, well, it’s about …everything, including both world wars, the Holocaust, and Vietnam. But also, again, science and religion, reason and faith, prophecy and sacrifice, tellers of stories and watchers of birds. Einstein, Wittgenstein, and Frank Sinatra are characters. And a novelist, looking for his next book in the bare ruined choirs of modern Manhattan. And an Episcopal priest, Thomas Pemberton, who will fall in love with a reform rabbi, Sarah Blumenthal, when the cross that has been stolen from the altar of his Lower East Side church mysteriously reappears on the roof of her Upper West Side synagogue.
Popular music and Hollywood movies are characters, too, glorious and ominous. Except one can’t imagine City of God on any big screen. How do you adapt a book as messy as the Bible itself, a hodgepodge of chronicles, verses, songs, and sins, a brilliant scissors-and-pasting of Hebrew gospels, Greek myths, Yiddish diaries, quantum physics, surreal screenplays, prose poems about trench warfare and aerial bombing, and an archive of every scrap of witness to the Nazi occupation of Lithuania? Or film the Midrash Jazz Quartet, a rap group of Talmudic interpreters of such pop standard secular hymns as “Me and My Shadow,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me”? What does gravity look like? Or “unmediated awe”? Or “moral consequence”? Or what Einstein has called the “first sacrament, the bending of starlight”? How, finally, do we picture an Episcopal priest who is so fed up with Christianity, and so in love with Sarah, that converting to Judaism is the only way he can think of to redeem himself from knowledge of the death camps?
So one points a finger at the obvious, and says that each new Doctorow interrogates another narrative strategy. That sounds French. The greater truth is that he’s got urgent things to say and seeks some form to say them in, or a form that will tease and torture secret meanings out of what he thinks he already knows, or a form, like a wishing well, down which to dream, scream, or drown. At stake is the soul of the citizen and the shape of community. To this redemptive mission, every time out, he brings all his many avatars: prophet, citizen, pilgrim, thaumaturge, Sam Spade, and Joe Hill. Nobody does it better.